The following article is reprinted from the Lemonade Stand column by Carol Barbieri, originally published May 11, 2000 on

carol_barbieri_head_50We don’t get to choose our mothers, but we do get to choose our husbands. In doing so, we not only enter into a life with a man, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, ’till death do we part, Amen, but we instantly inherit an entire collection of unknown relatives. Overnight, we become a member of His Family, total strangers, with whom we will inevitably share holidays, birthday parties, weddings, and funerals.

We can rub a crystal ball until it shines like a new penny. We can spin an 8 Ball around until it is reduced to the size of a marble, waiting for it to give us the answer we seek. We can see a hundred psychics. But, until we utter the words, “I do,” we haven’t a clue about the woman who brought our darling husband into the world. We really know zilch about the woman who fed him, diapered him, nurtured him, and molded him into the Knight in Shining Armor, with whom we fell deeply and madly in love.

Now, that woman could either turn out to be “The Good Witch of the North,” or “The Wicked Witch of the West.” Either way you look at it, it’s a fifty-fifty gamble, at best. The woman who will cry at your wedding, who will wear blue, because The Mother of the Bride is wearing pink, and who will someday share the title of “Grandmother” with your own mother, will first, foremost, and forever be your Mother-in-law.

The noun, “Mother-in-law,” invariably brings with it a whole host of unfavorable connotations, whether they are valid or not. One of the most common inquiries I received during my engagement was, “What’s his mother like?” I was warned to look for “signs of trouble,” by well-meaning friends.

“I hope he’s not a Mamma’s Boy,” they said. “Make sure you’re clear right at the start, “which holidays you’re going to get,” they told me. “Put your foot down if she starts to meddle into your lives,” they advised. In their defense, I had seen many a “Good Witch of the North” amazingly transform into a “Wicked Witch of the West,” after the vows were exchanged. So, I cast a cautious eye on the situation.

But for me, none of those signs ever appeared. In fact, from the day I met my Mother-in-law, I liked her. She made me feel like I was a member of the family, even before I “officially” was one. She was warm, caring, sensitive, and kind to me until she died, nearly two years ago. I couldn’t have prayed for a better woman to have as a Mother-n-law. She was, in every sense of the word, like a “mother” to me. And yet from the day I became her son’s wife, for some reason, I could never call her, “Mom.”

This inability of mine to call her by that appropriate title, secretly tortured me. All of my friends called their Mothers-in-law, “Mom.” Even if they rued the day they married their husbands because of her, the term slid as easily out of their mouths as a pat of butter. 

Yet, for me, every time I tried to say it, the word got stuck in my throat and just stayed there. I was grateful on the day I gave birth to our first son, so that I could call her, “Grandma,” instead.

And what a grandmother she was! Before I was even five months pregnant with both of our boys, she had bought “The Coming Home Outfit,” so that it was “all ready” for them when they came home from the hospital. She called me every morning to see “how many ounces” of formula they drank at the midnight feeding. She offered to come down to help me so that I could “get some shut-eye.” When the weather turned cold, she would make sure that I had dressed the baby dressed in “the little undershirt with the long sleeves on it,” so that he would be warm enough if I took him out for a walk.

If the boys were sick, she prayed for them. If they asked for a special toy, she would buy it for them. One Christmas, she waited in a line for three hours at Toys R Us and spent sixty bucks on a Cabbage Patch doll, so that our son wouldn’t be disappointed on Christmas morning. “He’s going to think that he was a bad boy and that Santa is mad at him!” she explained. She would forgo a private audience with the Pope, sooner than miss her grandson’s saxophone solo in the Annual Spring Band Concert.

She knew the names of all the boys’ friends, their favorite TV shows, and what day of the week they took their piano lessons. She made them Halloween costumes and offered every year to buy them their “Easter outfits.” She took “their side” when they were being punished and tried to get me to “knock five minutes off their Prison Time” in The Time- Out Chair, if they had misbehaved. She would slip them a cookie (behind my back) before dinner if they were hungry, and talk me into letting them go into the pool much too soon after eating. “I’ll jump in and rescue them if they get a cramp!” she’d say. It took me weeks to “undo” the spoiling that she had bestowed upon them, after they spent a weekend at her house. But, I always felt that it was the privilege of grandparents to spoil their grandchildren. They had earned it. Besides, she never really undermined my authority. She always respected my role as their Parent, Mother, and Eternal Ruler. I knew she meant well and that she always had their best interests at heart.

Her love and affection went well beyond her grandchildren, though. She called me every day, when I was pregnant and experiencing “morning sickness,” just to see how many times I had “puked.” She taught me how to make a meatball that would melt in your mouth. If I were too sick to get up out of bed, she would come down to our house to take care of me and “the boys” (my husband included). She showed me, for the first time in my life, what a real holiday was; a day filled with warmth, great food, laughter and fun. In fact, I can’t think of a single holiday without remembering her.

She had special “Christmas Curtains,” special “Thanksgiving Curtains,” and special “Easter Curtains.” Every year, she cheerfully washed, starched, and hung them with heartfelt care over a little window above her kitchen sink. She could set a table using Corelle dishes and make it look like it was fit for a royal banquet. Everything she cooked tasted like it had dropped right from Heaven. She could make you a cup of coffee that tasted like the beans had just, minutes before, been harvested from a coffee plantation in Brazil. Why? Because everything she did, she did with love.

She also taught me her “Philosophy of Mothering.” “It boils down to two words,” she once told me: ‘bribery” and “blackmail’.” I guess she knew what she was talking about, because it seems to have worked. Her grandsons have never been in an ounce of trouble and she often said that they had made her “proudest Grandmother alive.” All I had to do, if the boys misbehaved, was say “I’m going to tell Grandma,” and they would stop dead in their tracks.

But, I would mislead you, if I were to give you the impression that she was perfect. For one thing, she had a mouth like a prisoner on Death Row. She smoked like a three-alarm fire and once got fired from Macy’s department store for “insubordination.” If my Father-in-law refused to buy her the sofa she wanted, she wouldn’t talk to him for a week until he gave in. Once, she forgot to put the sugar in her cheesecake. And every single Thanksgiving, she remembered to put the cranberry sauce on the table after we had all finished eating. But none of those things will ever send you straight to Hell. As a matter of fact, the day she died, I could almost feel her rising up to Heaven, with all of the other Angels.

“Angel” is what she used to call me. She used to say that I was her daughter, not her daughter-in-law. Some of my friends’ Mothers-in-law used to make them feel like daughter-outlaws. But not mine. I couldn’t have been blessed with a better Mother-in-law, if I had said the Rosary for ten years straight.

So why then, could I never call her, “Mom?” That question still eludes me and still gives me that uneasy feeling in my stomach. Maybe it’s because I’m adopted and I never knew my “real” mother. Maybe it’s because my adoptive mother was never as good to me as my Mother-in-law was. Maybe, for me, the word “Mom” had more of a negative connotation than a positive one. But any word in the dictionary other than “Angel” would fall short of describing that wonderful woman. Whatever the reason is, my chance is gone now, because she’s gone now and it’s too late. But I know it would have made her so happy if I had addressed her in the proper way. And I would give ten years of my life to have just one minute with her today.

I would say to her, “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.”

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Allan Dean

Allan Dean is editor, publisher, and founder of the Atlantic Highlands Herald. Published since 1999 and selected in 2000 by the Borough of Atlantic Highlands as one of their official newspapers, making...